President Donald Trump is barreling into his 100th day in office, and the federal government remains a bare-bones operation.
There are 549 key positions in Trump’s administration that require Senate confirmation. Trump has yet to nominate anyone to 468 of them.
“You can’t run everything through a single small pipe and expect to get the business of government done,” says Max Stier, the CEO of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, which works with both parties to think through staffing government positions.
So far, among positions needing Senate approval, Trump has formally nominated 35 people, 25 of whom have been confirmed. There are an additional 28 people Trump has said he will nominate but has not yet formally nominated. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was the most recent confirmation on April 27, three days before Trump’s 100-day mark.
Comparably, at this point his presidency, former President Barack Obama had 69 positions confirmed and a total of 190 people nominated. George W. Bush has 85 formal nominations and 35 confirmed positions.
The lack of appointees has made for a directionless federal government. With only temporary employees in top positions, career public servants have spent months without the ability to execute real work, Julia Ioffe wrote for the Atlantic in March:
The action at Foggy Bottom has instead moved to the State Department cafeteria where, in the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues. (“The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” a mid-level State Department officer said, adding that it was a very unusual sight. “No one’s doing anything.”)
Trump is known for using a small team; his campaign operated with a staff of fewer than a dozen for much of the election cycle and long touted the efficiency of vetting ideas through a two- to five-person chain. But despite Trump’s claims of a great and speedy transition, the reality is that his small team has hit a lot of roadblocks and has many holes in key positions.
To understand how a bare-bones governmental organization impacts the Trump administration’s ability to govern, I checked in with Stier. In late February, he told me Trump lagged behind almost every recent president in terms of political appointments. Now inching closer to his 100th day in office, Trump has done little to try to catch up — which could cause major holdups if a crisis should hit.
Trump has been behind on federal appointments from the start. How is the government looking now?
There are way too many political appointees, and no prior president has actually gotten their team on the field in significant measure when the game clock started. President Trump has done worse than the historical norm.
It’s very hard to catch up.
At this stage of the game, President Obama had 190 nominations and 69 confirmed leaders in seats. President Trump’s numbers are quite a bit less than [Obama’s], and when you look at the pipeline, you see more clouds on the horizon. One thing that tripped up this administration is a failure to fully understand the process required to get Senate-confirmed people in place. One of the major stops is to get the ethics review done. That is a foreshadow of what is to come.
Even there, Trump has many fewer people in the queue to get reviewed by the Office of Government Ethics than President Obama did in a similar stage in the game.
But Trump has always operated with a small team. What makes this consequential?
It’s very consequential because the federal government is a very complicated and diverse organization that requires leadership in parallel. You can’t run everything through a single small pipe and expect to get the business of government done. And that is true both with respect to the agenda that the president is pursuing, as well as the inevitable crisis that will come over the horizon.
The ability to respond to that is diminished by not having your team in place, and the numbers are pretty stark. The most salient comparison is to the last president, [because] these are the first two administrations that have had to staff their government in a post-9/11 world, and that raises the stakes. The risks facing the government are substantial, and having the government working at its highest order is essential.
Trump says all these positions aren’t necessary. What’s the counterargument?
President Trump has made statements about not being clear what all these folks do —maybe they are not all necessary. There is truth to what he says. In fact, a smart approach to governance would actually involve a reduction of the number of Senate-confirmed positions. The executive can do that, and that would involve a delayering and decluttering, getting rid the cloud of folks that get in the way of decision-making and action and get in the way of appointees working with the career workforce.
But the way to resolve that isn’t by simply failing to act.
There are acting people in all these jobs. Because they are acting, they are not able to do the job to the best of their ability. It’s the substitute teacher phenomenon. You can be an amazing teacher, but because you are a substitute teacher, you don’t get the respect — you are not viewed of having real authority.
There is a way to do this by reducing the number of political appointments being made. But it’s not being done.
No president gets this done fast. Is there any indication they are picking up the pace?
I do think they are getting better at it. They have begun the process of building out an Office of Governmental Personnel. There are more people in the queue. The problem, though, is that they are still not moving at the pace they need to, and it’s very hard to catch up when you are behind.
There are a lot of competing pressures. The Office of Government Ethics; the Senate is another one. And you have other competing priorities. Right now the Senate needs to be focused on keeping the government running. There are real trade-offs. But not moving very quickly and being organized at the front end, it becomes very challenging later on to make up that ground.
What does this mean for what government is actually doing every day?
As a practical matter, what you see across the board in government is a tentativeness. The career individuals are not viewed by those around them by having the authority to make long-term choices. Government is not moving as quickly as it needs to, and it’s not making some of those harder choices.
The hiring freeze, the budget uncertainty, all layer in to make it very difficult for acting leadership to move things aggressively. When you think of issues like tax reform, which require substantial expertise from the Treasury Department, or the day-to-day operations that government has to meet, government is very good at moving forward at a steady state. But if you really want to drive improvement and change, you have to have great leaders in place who are up to speed and working together as a team. All of that is undermined by failing to get your Senate-confirmed people in place.
Trump came in wanting to drain the swamp. How is that playing out?
This administration has been quick to set out the outlines to a real management agenda. I want to give them credit when credit is due. It’s a plan for a plan, but that’s appropriate given where they are right now.
The proposition that the Trump administration put on the table is that we need to revisit how government operates [by] putting out an executive order that agencies need to go back and figure out what they can do to deliver better services for less cost to the American public. The challenge will be who is running that process in each of those agencies. To make that plan really matter, you need leaders in place to get this done.
At the front end, this administration has struggled to understand the processes of government, which comes in part with not having enough people that have substantial government experience in their circle. These are crazy-hard jobs. Every one has a steep learning curve coming into office. The question is, do you learn the right lessons?
The idea that draining the swamp only occurs without having any people who understand how the swamp works is not a good one.